Yankees present comic opera: Return of Billy Martin, Part IV

Baseball's longest-running soap opera is back in New York, and for the moment at least it is the Yankees -- rather than the Mets -- who are splattered all over the tabloids and getting the big play on TV. And people wonder why George Steinbrenner did it? The only surprising thing, really, is that he waited as long as he did before making his latest publicity grab by firing Yogi Berra and bringing back Billy Martin to manage the team for yet a fourth time.

As anyone who has followed the Yankee owner's career is well aware, the only things that matter to him are winning and being the center of attention -- not necessarily in that order. George has never been known for his patience, and undoubtedly disliked seeing his team in the cellar via a 6-10 start. But it's a good guess that these things bothered him a lot more every time he looked at the National League standings or read another story about the rising fortunes of the Mets.

But Billy Martin? How could any owner entrust a multi-million dollar operation to a brawling problem child who couldn't stay out of trouble if he tried -- and who we all know isn't going to try? More to the point, how could this particular owner start all over again with a manager who has feuded with him off and on since 1976, and whom he has already fired on three previous occasions?

Again, though, the answer is easy. In fact you might say, paraphrasing one of Martin's own more famous statements, that he and Steinbrenner deserve each other: one is a born troublemaker, and the other one thrives on such turmoil.

In many ways, then, the move makes sense. Steinbrenner actually enjoys the turbulence that inevitably swirls around Martin. Meanwhile he'll get the the headlines and the boost in TV ratings he craves, at least for a while. And unless things are different from every previous time Billy came on the scene, he'll get an increase in attendance as well.

Will he also get a winner? That one's trickier, depending on the performance of his own players plus others. He might, though, for whatever else you say about Billy Martin, no one can deny that in a career spanning more than three decades as a player or manager, he has been a winner. As his old mentor, Casey Stengel, used to say, ``You can look it up.''

Billy was the sparkplug of those mighty Yankee teams of the 1950s, and although he had only a .257 lifetime batting average he hit .333 in World Series play and was the type who rose to the occasion. It was his diving catch of Jackie Robinson's twisting popup that saved the 1952 classic, while the next year he had a record 12 hits with two homers and eight RBIs, including the Series winner in the ninth inning of the last game.

As a manager, Martin turned losing teams into winners at Minnesota in 1969, at Detroit in 1972, at Texas in 1974, in New York a couple of times, and in Oakland in 1980. All of these teams except Texas won at least division titles, while the job he did with the Rangers was arguably the best one of all -- leading a sorry club that had been last the year before to a second-place finish that earned him Manager of the Year honors.

Martin is the type of manager who gets really involved in running the game. And unlike some pilots who insist that it all depends on your personnel, Billy believes that a manager operating this way can affect the outcome of a significant number of games during the season. Given his record of success, who is going to argue with him?

But the flip side of that record is the man's boundless capacity for self-destruction. Billy has a long history of feuding with his players as well as with the people who pay his salary (the latter habit undoubtedly explaining why despite his success he has never held any managerial job longer than three years). His penchant for putting his foot in his mouth is perhaps best illustrated by the comment that got him fired in 1978 when he said Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner deserved each other because ``one's a born liar and the other's convicted'' (apparently referring to the owner's guilty plea in 1974 to giving a false explanation for a political campaign contribution). Billy hasn't always confined his temper to the verbal area either, as in the much-publicized barroom fight with a marshmallow salesman that cost him another job.

His current tenure doesn't really figure to be very long either -- perhaps even just to the end of this season. Lou Piniella, a longtime favorite as player and coach, is supposedly in line for the manager's job at some point. And some reports say Martin wasn't really the first choice now -- that he only got the job after former Baltimore pilot Earl Weaver rejected it.

Whatever the facts, one thing is clear: Steinbrenner acted precipitously and ruthlessly in the case of Berra, a long-time loyal Yankee who surely deserved more than 16 games to get his team going -- especially with his record of having guided previous Yankee and Met teams to pennants. Steinbrenner is a ``What have you done for me lately'' guy, though, and no one was really surprised when it all happened.

So for a while, at least, all eyes will be focused on Martin as we wait to see if this fourth time around can approach his first Yankee managerial stint (pennants in 1976 and 1977) or will be more like the other two (fourth place in 1979 and third in 1983).

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